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Posted at: Jan 29, 2018, 12:35 AM; last updated: Jan 29, 2018, 12:35 AM (IST)

Free farmers from middlemen

Vibha sharma

Too much of anything is bad. It is certainly true for the stressed Indian agriculture sector. Record production due to the good monsoon last year, which happened after two successive dry spells, could not make farmers happy. In fact, it adversely impacted them. Oversupply resulted in a steep fall in the prices of agricultural produce. Farmers struggled to recover their input costs. 

Many sold their produce at a loss. Restrictive market and inadequate storage facilities forced them to throw vegetables on the roads. It had been a common sight. 

Even after seven decades of the Independence, remunerative prices for crops and other farm produce is elusive for Indian farmers. Modern technology, high-yielding seeds and fertilisers have helped in raising farm output, but not farmer's prosperity. In the agricultural ecosystem, the post-harvest management is the weakest link. So far, the government has not been able to address this sore point. 

Farmers’ income

It is expected that the better market access to farmers would be the key focus of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's Budget next month. This is essential to achieve Prime Minister Narendra Modi's goal of doubling farmers' income by 2022. Two crucial years have already been lost and this is the last full Budget of the NDA government before the 2019 General Election. The Prime Minister had announced his plan to double farmers' income at a ‘Kisan Rally’ in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, on February 28, 2016. 

Indeed, doubling the income is not a cakewalk for the Centre. Agriculture, including marketing, is a state subject. This could be the reason why the Centre's ambitious e-NAM (Electronic National Agriculture Market), which was launched to provide transparent and competitive trading option to farmers, failed to produce desired results. 

The market access

The Centre's attempt to make a difference in farmers’ livelihood with e-NAM has been resisted by the states due to vested interests. A large number of middlemen or arhtiyas are exploiting the farmers for years. 

This equation may, however, change. As the BJP has governments in 18 states, the party leadership needs only a strong political will to tame these unscrupulous elements. The electronic trading platform can directly connect the farmer with the buyer, eliminating the middleman.

To become a part of e-NAM, the states need to reform the APMC Act. So far, more than a dozen states, including UT of Chandigarh, are live on e-NAM.   

The vote bank

The Budget provides a good opportunity for the BJP to woo crucial rural voters ahead of the 2019 General Election. The Gujarat verdict has given enough hints to the party that they have alienated farmers by remaining indifferent to their woes. The urban voters may have saved the day for the BJP in Gujarat, but continued farmers’suicides in the country's hinterlands are reasons to be worried. 

Although the loan waiver formula has been successfully practised by all parties to entice the rural voters, the farmer wants a permanent solution to their problems. This requires better farm infrastructure, elaborate soil health programme and policy interventions to change the traditional rice-wheat cropping patterns. 

Raising minimum support prices (MSPs), insurance covers against natural calamities, writing off large amounts of accumulated farm debts are temporary respites to distressed farmers. The permanent solution to the farm sector can be achieved through policy measures that would make agriculture a sustainable business. The Budget can extend fiscal incentives to set up better infrastructure that would minimise post-harvest losses of foodgrains, fruits, vegetables and other farm produce. India lacks cold chain facilities to transport produce from surplus to sparse. 

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